Why stress is actually your friend (Hormesis)

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We have all heard this phrase a million times.

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It is something that we all know to be true. And I think that we know this because it is a biological reality. It is something that has been true for longer than we have had the words to express it. It has been true longer than humans have been on this planet.

Our bodies and that of life, in general, are not static. We are adaptable. We change based on what is happening in the environment. We have a potential and that potential is expressed in certain ways depending on what is occurring around us.  

This brings us to this idea of Hormesis. Hormesis comes from the understanding that when you expose an organism to a stress, say bacteria in a petri dish being exposed to heat, or you sitting in a sauna, an extreme dose of that stress can kill the organism. 

Too much stress for too long = death

But this is the cool part. If you don’t get to those extremes. Say you only expose them to a slight warming or even heating them up to a high temperature but it only for a brief amount of time. So the stress has been decreased to a level that is not fatal, that this can actually cause a rebound effect and the organism (aka you) will be better able to deal with that stress in the future.

hormesis 2

These hormetic effects are why things like exercise, certain drugs, supplements, foods, sauna, ice baths, and caloric restriction are so good for us. They are a stress on our bodies, and when at the correct dose it conveys some benefit to us in both the short term and long term.

Let me explain through something that I have done a significant amount of research on and that is the sauna. Like I said above if the stress is too high then it will cause death. We can all imagine that if we sat in a sauna that was way too hot for way too long that it would not end well.

BUT when you understand this idea of Hormesis you can see why sitting in a sauna at an elevated temperature (so it’s hot but not WAY hot), and you stay in just long enough say 10-20 minutes that this will stress the system (aka you) in a way that will cause your body to release tons of beneficial chemical compounds.

One of these compounds are aptly named heat shock proteins. These proteins unsurprisingly are released when we are exposed to heat.

These heat shock proteins of HSPs have a wide range of effects including making other proteins in our bodies more resilient to heat (heat tends to denature proteins), but they also prevent other forms of damage that occur like protein aggregation (things like beta-amyloid in Alzheimer’s and atherosclerosis in our blood vessels. These are caused by misfolded proteins and the HSPs can actually help to prevent this misfolding from occurring in the first place. These HSPs are also activated when you exercise through raising your core body temperature and can stay active for days to weeks. Just another reason why exercise is such a powerful tool.

While these HSPs are really beneficial this is just ONE example of the countless beneficial compounds that are released when your body is exposed to these hormetic stressors. This is why that phrase what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is so true. When you are exposed to a stress that is sufficiently strong, but not so strong that it severely damages you then your body will release compounds making you a better version of yourself.

These hormetic stressors can be from things like the sauna and exercise, but they are also why certain supplements like turmeric work. Many people are now raving about the benefits of turmeric, but what they don’t realize is that turmeric is actually a stress on our body. There are compounds in it that are actually slightly toxic to our bodies. So what does our body do in this situation? It upregulates certain pathways in our bodies that make us better able to deal with stress in the future.

What makes hormetic stressors different from stress that most of us thing to be bad for us is the intensity and more importantly the duration. Hormetic stressors need to be acute. Chronic stress is bad for us and leads to all kinds of negative outcomes.

When we get a sufficient stress but the duration is short and then we have time to recover that is what is going to make us stronger and better able to deal with that stress in the future.

Another thing that these hormetic stressors do is that they cause Epigenetic changes to your DNA which will be our last topic before I tie all of this together and show you how to…

Become A Better You!

This is Floyd Meyer with Catalyst Impacts signing off.


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